Paul Kei Matsuda

Reading and Learning Strategies

Just after writing my earlier post "How to Read Everything?" I found this article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Close the Book. Recall. Write It Down.
The best way to study for an exam? Don't just reread chapters and review notes — put everything away and then try to write down, or describe out loud, what you know. That's the conclusion of two papers recently published in psychology journals. "After you've read something once, you've gotten what you're going to get out of it," one professor says, "and then you need to go out and start applying the information."

Well, writing specialists have long been talking about the benefits of writing to read. Putting the knowledge to active use is the best way to understand and remember it.

For me, writing an article, in which I not only tell but transform knowledge (Bereiter and Scardamalia), helps me read better and learn more. I'm also focused on accomplishing a rhetorical goal (see Cumming's recent work on goal theory) or object (Engeström), rather than on learning itself. (See how I'm putting my knowledge to active use?)

Those late-night conversations (over beer) with Dwight Atkinson is also helpful, because we challenge each other and stimulate further thinking.

By the way, when I was in junior high school, I had a personal policy of not cramming for exams (including language exams). If I understand the material, I reasoned, I should be able to do well on those exams. I was somewhat naive because I didn't know that knowing something and doing well on the exams are somewhat different things because of other factors, such as the familiarity with the genre. But I did intuitively understand something about test validity.

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RE: difference or diversity?

Hi Mickey,

An interesting word game! I'm in!

To me, these terms overlap in their core meanings, but my usage has been shifting gradually from diversity to difference, depending on the audience. That's largely because of the shifting connotations of these terms.

Diversity has been a useful term because of its positive connotation and because of its association with biodiversity--a necessity rather than just something that's nice to have. But it has also become somewhat diluted for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is the institutionalized "celebration" of diversity that often leads to token representations and naïve (though well-intended) liberalism. It has also been appropriated for too many different purposes and by people who represent a range of political perspectives (e.g., "intellectual diversity"). But it still remains useful in some contexts, so I'm not willing to give it up entirely just yet.

Difference, on the other hand, allows us to focus on the substance of "diversity" more directly. It is aligned with the thoughts of de Saussure and Derrida (or the reconstructed thoughts, in the case of de Saussure). While diversity is more celebratory, difference is more confrontational, raising the awareness of the presence of, well, differences that have been neutralized in our discursive practices.

This is not to say that there have not been naïve-liberal attempts to co-opt this term. Some people react to the naked reality that the term "difference" exposes and argue that it's not "nice" to focus on the differences, that we should be focusing on similarities. "Everyone is different," the argument goes, so we should treat everyone the same way. Well, yes, everyone is different, but in different ways and to different degrees.

We need to realize that some differences are more consequential than others (depending on the context); some differences are accepted while others are simply ignored (because it's not "nice" to talk about those differences). I'm thinking of language differences in the writing center and the writing classroom, of course. Academic writing (in English) may be the second language for everyone, but to some, it's a much more distant second language; and a growing number of students are actually dealing with "writing as a second language" while also learning a second language (see Matsuda and Jablonski).

What works for the dominant population (whose differences have already become the norm) doesn't work for those whose differences have been disregarded. If we are going to treat everyone the same way, the baseline should include a wider variety of differences.

These are the issues that are becoming increasingly apparent, and these are the issues that the term "difference" seems to help me capture.

Here is the link to Matsuda and Jablonski:

It's fun to play with words, isn't it? ;-)


Paul Kei Matsuda, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Director of Writing Programs

Arizona State University
Department of English
Box 870302
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302 USA 

Founding Chair, Symposium on Second Language Writing

Editor, Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing

Web Administrator, Journal of Second Language Writing

-----Original Message-----
Subject: difference or diversity?
From: Muriel Harris <>
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 2009 00:10:39 -0400

Hi all, word game for the week:

I've been wondering how we distinguish difference from diversity. We
talk about different tutorials, different students, different ways of
learning. Is that the same as diversity? If not, how do you
distinguish between them? If we talk about diversity in the writing
center AND difference in the writing center, what separates them?
Some dictionaries treat the two words as synonyms, but are they in
the terminology or context we use them?

I'm really curious to hear what others think, and I don't expect us
to agree, but that's part of what makes this so interesting.

Muriel Harris
Professor Emerita of English
Writing Lab Newsletter, Editor
Writing Lab Director (retired)

Symposium Proposal Deadline: April 30, 2009

Dear SSLWLIST Subscribers,

I'm writing to remind everyone that the deadline for submitting proposals for the 2009 Symposium on Second Language Writing is April 30, 2009 (Arizona Time/GMT-7:00), which is next Thursday.

The call for proposals is available at:

For more information about the 2009 Symposium, please visit:

The registration information will be available soon. I will send out an announcement when it's ready.

I look forward to seeing many of you in November!


Paul Kei Matsuda, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Director of Writing Programs

Arizona State University
Department of English
Box 870302
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302 USA 

Founding Chair, Symposium on Second Language Writing

Editor, Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing

Web Administrator, Journal of Second Language Writing

How to Read Everything?

The phrase "read everything" seems to have become my mantra in advising graduate students and scholars. I mentioned this when I was visiting National Chiao Tung Unviersity in Taiwan a few weeks ago, and more than a few people said they were going to start reading everything in their email message to me or even on Facebook!

Today, I just received a comment from Joe in response to my earlier blog entry on reading everything:

I've just come across this wonderful blog. Thank you so much for your valuabale advice.

People have been advicing graduate students (especially M.A. students) to read a lot. However, hardly do they talk about how to read. I have found myself struggling with reading for graduate school and so have my friends. Would you mind sharing your thoughts or your strategies on this? Do you take notes for
everything you read? Thank you, Dr. Matsuda.

Some of my answers can be found in other related blog entries (a list of related entries as well as other pieces of advice for graduate students can be found here) and in "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student" (2003). But I don't think I've had the chance to talk about taking notes.

The answer is: I don't.

Most of the books and journals in my personal library are clean--I could sell them on ebay or Amazon anytime, though I rarely sell my books because I consider them to be important tools of my trade.

I've always found underlining or highlighting texts to be more distracting than helpful. (My suspicion was confirmed in the introductory psychology course I took during my first year in college, where the professor mentioned a study showing that underlining is not an effective strategy for studying.) I also don't like how those marks left on the pages actually constrain my reading the next time I read the same text--they distract me away from grasping the meaning in larger contexts and particularly in the context of my current thoughts. For that reason, I don't like buying books second hand or borrowing books from the library. Sadly, some people underline books from the library!

When I was a master's student, I used to buy lost of sticky tabs at Staples and put them by the line that seemed important. The idea was that I would be able to take them off when I was done, though I almost never did. (Some of my books from those days still have yellow tabs sticking out.)

I thought the sticky notes would help me find places that I needed to refer to during class discussion or when I cite the source. What I learned after a few years was that: 1) I put too many tabs that they became meaningless; 2) even when I didn't put too many of them, they made me feel as though I had to talk about all of them during the discussion or in citing that source; and 3) too often, what I ended up citing was in places other than those that were marked with the sticky tabs.

I have also tried to take notes on separate sheets. It was useful when I was preparing for comprehensive exams, but I also noticed that I seldom looked at them again unless there were specific and immediate reasons for taking notes. I tend to lose my notes in the pile of stuff in my (cluttered) offices. Some of the notes have survived because I filed them away with the articles I read, but I stopped doing this because the same filing strategy wouldn't work for books. (I find it important to develop a thinking system to be consistent so my distributed cognitition does not become disturbed cognition.)

Even if I don't lose them, I often can't reconstruct what I meant--not only because of my terrible handwriting but also because the notes are always already out of context and outdated. So I stopped taking notes and started to rely on my memory.

I don't regret having gone through these stages of trying different strategies because they probably facilitated the development of my reading strategies and the understanding of the contents. But at some point in my professional development, I took the leap of faith--I learned to trust my own intuition. I felt that it actually helped me read faster, read more, and understand the important points better. And those ideas would come back to me when I need them because I've already rehearsed the conversations as I was reading them. That is, I felt my knowledge became more contextualized.

Some people ask if I have what's called a photographic memory.

The answer is: I don't.

But I do tend to remember books by their color, and the visual design of the text. I often remember which part of the page I found the idea (e.g., top left corner of the page, about half way through the book).

Some people might wonder how I could do this with academic publications, which are visually not as distinct as, say, magazine articles or web pages. Well, I thought the same thing about houses in Arizona--they all looked the same when I moved here, but now I can appreciate individual differences among various neighborhoods and individual houses.

I've also learned not to worry about sticking to the same text in the reading process--I read regular texts like hypertexts. (People in the field of computers and composition seemed to be busy theorizing the notion of hypertext in the early 1990s, but even back then, I found the concept to be straight forward and intuitive.)

Sometimes I start thinking about a related topic as I read. If that happens, I often put down what I'm reading and start looking for other related reading materials. They may be something I've read before or sources that are mentioned in the text I'm reading. Or I may follow my hunch and go to a text that might have something related, and I often do find something interesting, which is really exciting. It's like a mental game--I have a lot of fun doing this.

I can still keep track of who said what because I try to get to know them personally. As I read, I form ideas about each author. I also try to meet them at conferences and get to know them so I know where they are coming from. Academic reading and writing to me are really like joining a conversation with a group of people I care about.

For similar reasons, I usually don't take notes when I listen to presentations. I used to take notes to ask questions, but I stopped doing that as well. After hearing countless conference presentations, I know the genre inside out, and that helps me understand where the speaker is going. (I can also tell when the speaker is not going anywhere.) If I am the respondent, I may take notes, but mostly to outline my responses (if I have to respond, that is). They are not "records" of what I write; instead, they are part of my distributed cognition.

At CCCC this year, for example, I served as a respondent for a panel with Suresh Canagarajah, Bruce Horner, Min Lu, Catherine Prendergast, and John Trimbur. I used a small notepad (courtesy of the convention hotel) to create an outline of my response as I was listening. I started doing something similar at a TESOL academic session on writing (organized by Chris Tardy and featuring Lourdes Ortega, Meg Gebhardt, Youngjoo Yi, Ilona Leki, and Miyuki Sasaki). But in the middle of the session, I decided that it wasn't working, so I took out my laptop and start creating PowerPoint slides, which became my formal response.

I also don't take notes during meetings--I remember things better if I'm engaged. When I served as the chair of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing, I always asked someone I trust (e.g., Jessie Moore at Elon University and Angela Dadak at American University) to take the minutes. If I do take notes, it's usually to help organize the meeting.

If there are things that I need to follow up on, I would sometimes write them down, but if I don't act on them right after the meeting, they get lost. These days, I just email those tasks to myself (or ask others to email me) so I would actually follow up on them.

My strategy, then, has been to just read, read and read, and keep adding them to my mental intertextual map. Or sometimes they get integrated into my thinking directly as I get stimulated and start developing my own ideas. I don't even write down my own ideas, either, because if it's a really good idea (and one of my criteria for a good idea is that it responds to the particular rhetorical situation), it would come back in the context of my immediate thoughts when appropriate. If not, then the idea is going to be out of place, which is what I often see in manuscripts that I read.

I used to keep a clipboard by my bed so I can write down my ideas anytime, but I gave up on that as well. If I can't remember it when I needed it, I figure, it wasn't a good idea to begin with. If it really made sense, I would have the same thought again.

Of course this leisurely approach to reading (and thinking) requires a lot of time, but that's what my profession is about--I'm in the business of acquiring and making knowledge. If I have to know everything about my field, I might as well enjoy it. It may seem impossible, but it does get easier as my content and formal schema develop.

The key is not to wait until I have to read something for my projects. When I read as I write, my reading process becomes much more focused and purposeful. That's good, but that's different from "reading everything." Rather, it is the result of reading everything; I feel I can be more focused partly because I have already developed a strong intertextual network in my mind. I often know exactly what information I need and where I can find it.

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CFP: 2010 Intercultural Competence Conference

Call for Proposals for 2010 Intercultural Competence Conference

Conference Dates: January 29-31, 2010

Conference Theme: Aiming for "The Third Place:" Intercultural Competence
through Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Claire Kramsch - University of California, Berkeley

Proposal Types Accepted: Papers, Posters, Workshops

Proposal Submission Deadline: June 15, 2009

Location: The Hotel Arizona in Tucson, Arizona

Conference Website:

Description: Intercultural competence is [the ability] "to see
relationships between different cultures - both internal and external to
a society - and to mediate, that is interpret each in terms of the
other, either for themselves or for other people." It also encompasses
the ability to critically or analytically understand that one's "own and
other cultures'" perspective is culturally determined rather than

Michael Byram, Professor, University of Durham

Globalization, having brought individuals in contact with one another at
an unprecedented scale, has also brought forth a general challenge to
traditionally recognized boundaries of nation, language, race, gender,
and class. The challenge moves in two directions simultaneously: on the
one hand, distinctions that were unnoticeable before have been rendered
visible, and in the opposite direction, similarities across traditional
boundaries have been recognized. The end result in both cases is that
boundaries of social practice are being re-negotiated, re-assessed, and
re-considered. For those living within this rapidly changing social
landscape, intercultural competence--as defined by Michael Byram
above--is a necessary skill, and the cultivation of such intercultural
individuals falls on the shoulders of today's educators. They should
provide students with opportunities to help them define and design for
themselves their "third place" or "third culture," a sphere of
interculturality that enables language students to take an insider's
view as well as an outsider's view on both their first and second
cultures. It is this ability to find/establish/adopt this third place
that is at the very core of intercultural competence.

The conference aims to bring researchers and practitioners across
languages, levels and settings to discuss and share research, theory,
and best practices and foster meaningful professional dialogue on issues
related to Intercultural Competence teaching and learning.

Advice to Graduate Students

In response to my advice to beginning Ph.D. students, George Braine from Chinese University of Hong Kong sent me two of his advice to graduate students who are beginning their Ph.D. studies. Here they are:

1. Time Management: Graduate students often underestimate the amount of time they will have to spend on conducting and writing-up their research. Learning to say "No" to people who exploit your time is probably the most important aspect of time management.

2. As part of a larger study, I surveyed and interviewed around 30 doctoral students from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering at Hong Kong universities to find out what led to their success or failure. The single most important factor for success was a sound working relationship with the thesis supervisor. Even the smartest students failed when this relationship broke down.

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Last update: January 6, 2008